R. Senthil Kumaran, a photographer of international repute, talks about his composing skills and what made him choose photography as a career option.

Senthil Kumaran may be modest, but has done enough in photography to grab the attention of the National Geographic magazine and UNESCO. He focuses on social and cultural documentation, photo journalism and wildlife issues. He was nominated among 114 young photographers in the world for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in 2005. His frames have won several international awards including the ‘Geographical Photographer of the Year – 2007’ awarded by Royal Geographical Society, London.

“I got this award for my photograph of a woman drying sari after taking a holy dip in the Ganges in Varanasi,” says Senthil Kumaran. “It was a stiff competition. Winners were chosen in categories such as travel, people and culture, wildlife, sports,expedition and field work. Of all the winners, I was adjudged the photographer of the year,” he beams.

His photographs have appeared in Getty Images, National Geographic, AFP, Terre Sauvage Magazine, City Magazine, Photo Life Magazine, Outdoor Photography, India Today, Business Today, Open Magazine and Tehelka.

His series of photographs on Dussehra celebrations in Kulasekarapattinam won the second prize under the folklore festivals category in the Humanity Photo Awards, organised by the UNESCO, China in 2006.

A postgraduate in computer applications, he sacrificed a lucrative job in the IT field and pursued photography. “I had a tough time convincing my family members,” he says. “Initially, there was resistance. Once the news of UNESCO award reached them, they started believing in my ability and acknowledged my efforts. It took them six years to recognise my talent and I won a 20-day all inclusive trip to China as the prize,” he says.

But Senthil still remembers his first international recognition when his series of photographs on manual scavengers were published in the UN magazine. These pictures also won him the first prize under the photo journalism category at a competition organised by the Indian International Photographic Council.

Ask him where he learnt the nuances of photography, he laughs. “Basically, it depends how passionate you are,” he says. Senthil never had any formal training in photography. He learnt the techniques through trial and error . “Once you are able to identify your mistakes then it means you are on the right track. It may be time consuming but the willingness to learn takes you to great heights.”

He traces his success to childhood when he, unlike other children, preferred to stay aloof and spend time in the company of nature. He likes fishing, taking care of street puppies and birds. “Even when I travelled with my family members, I used to take the window seat and peep out of the window to see trees going backwards and the setting sun,” he narrates.

His hobbies at that time were music and painting. The inter-collegiate cultural meet organised by the Images Club in Thiagarajar College proved to be the turning point in his life. He took part in art from waste and painting competitions and won prizes. But a photograph of sunset, which won the first prize, shattered his understanding of sunset.

“The picture was stunningly beautiful. I have never seen a sunset so close. Also it was picturesque with a coconut tree in the foreground. I bought a Yashica Electro 35 camera with the prize money and spent the next eight months capturing the sunset from different angles and in different shades. It gave me a lot of opportunity to understand lighting techniques. I also learnt to control light falling directly into the camera. I took a lot of silhouettes,” he says.

Gradually, he developed his skills with his uncle’s camera and took a lot of table top pictures. “Initially those product pictures helped me financially. This was the time when he also learnt about commercial photography but soon realised it was not his cup of tea and moved on to street photography inspired by French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. “He was an expert in candid photography. One could see geometrical shapes in his pictures. He took me to the next level in Street and Documentary photography.”

Street photography is full of life, feels Senthil. “It is a sensitive field, as it registers a moment. Time assumes great significance here as the street changes its colour and composition every second. Beyond colour aesthetics, there are several elements in street photography,” he says.

Senthil has documented the annual festival of transgenders and transvestites in Koovagam. . “Only after visiting this festival three times, I came to an understanding that there is something beyond our perception,” he says. “Once into photography, I don’t have control over the images and they carry me into the subject,”

Senthil is also into wildlife photography. Human and animal conflict generated his interest. “It is a tricky subject. You may have heard news about elephant/tiger killing man and vice-versa. There are instances when man-eating tigers were poisoned to death. Once into the animal habitat, how you conduct yourself is important,” he says.

A strong believer in passing on knowledge to the next generation he has formed Kannadi, a forum with like-minded friends, to conduct free photography workshops for school and college students. He also wants to document tribal people, their ornaments and culture in the form of a coffee-table book.

“Photographer should be a catalyst for social change and I would like to be one,” says Senthil, who is busy now at Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve for his next document on the big cat.